Some years back, when Pokemon ruled the world and my son Greg was in second grade, Halloween took an ugly turn. It started out pleasantly enough, with three boys heading out together to trick or treat.
The cast: Jason, Harry and Greg.
The scene: A pleasant residential neighborhood teeming with costumed kids and hovering parents.
The backstory: Greg and his friends had been going to Pokemon tournaments for a year or so. Each had a collection of trading cards whose cost, coupled with the miracle of compound interest, would probably equal a year of college when the time came. (Better not to think about that part.) They had all planned to trick or treat together, and each would come as his favorite Pokemon character.
The costumes: Poliwhirl, Pikachu and Charmeleon, respectively.
Yes, the Age of Nintendo had dawned in these boys' lives and there was no looking back. Forget the Scooby-Doos and Supermen of yesteryear, 2000 was all about Pokemon.
All three chose an evolved Pokemon: The blue, frog-like Poliwhirl had begun life as the tadpole-like Poliwag. Pikachu evolved from Pichu. And Charmeleon, with its flaming tail, was one step up from Charmander, but still well below the all-powerful Charizard.
The boys convened at our house. Each got along individually with the other, but the three together had sometimes led to flare-ups in the past as each jockeyed for position against the other two. Factor in the competitive nature of Pokemon and the high spirits surrounding Halloween and you were looking at a tinderbox of juvenile emotion. Still, as the group's escort I was sure I could handle it.
It all went smoothly for a while. We made it down the block and around the corner, as bags filled with candy and everyone was happy. Then, for some reason, at one of the houses Harry lagged behind. The rest of us were on the sidewalk waiting for him but he was still lingering at the door.
"Come on, slowpoke!" Greg yelled.
Now, you may not be familiar with the entire Pokedex (basically the database of all Pokemon, which at the time numbered 151). A quick lesson: Slowpoke, at number 79, was perhaps the slowest and dumbest creature of them all, requiring patience just to tolerate it. Harry heard "slowpoke" as "Slowpoke" and lost it. He felt deeply insulted. He started crying. He didn't want to walk with Greg any more. He wouldn't listen to any explanations. (He may not have been aware that the word existed outside of Pokemon. Of course, Greg may not have either.)
The trick or treating ended quickly after that. Harry insisted on going home, which meant we had to head back to our house and drive him there. Greg and Jason protested, but were too young to be on their own. The candy-gathering ceased and the night was ruined. Not only that, but Harry never wanted to be friends with Greg after that.
If there was a lesson, I couldn't figure out how to teach it. I tried, "Be careful with your words," and told Greg that sometimes what you say can be misconstrued. I had him apologize. Nothing worked. Eventually we all moved on to ignoring each other. Greg continued to see Harry at school, of course. They were cordial but didn't have much to say to each other, and that was OK. They went their separate ways after fifth grade. And the lessons have only gotten more complicated since then.